George Pell: Cardinal found guilty of sexual offences in Australia

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Cardinal George Pell has been found guilty of sexual offences in Australia, making him the highest-ranking Catholic figure to receive such a conviction.

Pell abused two choir boys in the rooms of a Melbourne cathedral in 1996, a jury found. He had pleaded not guilty.

The verdict was handed down in December, but it could not be reported until now due to legal reasons.

Pell is due to be sentenced on Wednesday. He has lodged an appeal against his conviction.

As Vatican treasurer, the 77-year-old cardinal was one of the Church’s most powerful officials.

His trial was heard twice last year because a first jury failed to reach a verdict.

A second jury unanimously convicted him of one charge of sexually penetrating a child under 16, and four counts of committing an indecent act on a child under 16.

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Pell was swarmed by media and heckled by onlookers as he left a court hearing on Tuesday.

The Catholic Church worldwide has in recent years faced a damaging series of allegations relating to sex abuse by priests, and claims that these cases were covered up.

Pell’s case has drawn huge interest at a time when the Pope is attempting to address the scandals, including by holding a four-day summit in the past week.

What did the court hear?

Pell was in his first year as archbishop of Melbourne in 1996 when he found the two boys in cathedral rooms following a mass, the jury was told.

After telling them they were in trouble for drinking communion wine, Pell forced each boy into indecent acts, prosecutors said.

The court heard testimony from one of the victims. The other victim is no longer alive.

A jury rejected an argument by Pell’s lawyer, Robert Richter QC, that the allegations were fantasies contrived by the victims.

What has been the reaction?

In a statement on Tuesday, Pell’s surviving victim – who cannot be named – described the case a stressful, adding it was “not over yet”.

The man said he had experienced “shame, loneliness, depression and struggle” because of the abuse.

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“Like many survivors it has taken me years to understand the impact upon my life,” he said.

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference said the conviction had “shocked many across Australia and around the world”, reiterating its vow to make the Church “a safe place for all”.

What has Pell said?

“Cardinal George Pell has always maintained his innocence and continues to do so,” said a statement issued on his behalf on Tuesday.

It said Pell looked forward the outcome of his appeal. He has been on leave from the Vatican since June 2017, fighting the accusations.

Why was the case kept secret?

Last May, a judge handed down a legal order which prevented any reporting of Pell’s trial and conviction.

It was designed to prevent a separate trial – which will no longer go ahead – from being influenced by the first trial.

The abandoned trial was to hear unrelated allegations – strongly denied by Pell – that he indecently assaulted boys in Ballarat, Victoria, in the 1970s. Prosecutors withdrew their case on Tuesday, citing insufficient evidence.

The collapse of the second trial led to the lifting of the publication ban.

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Cardinal ‘didn’t flinch’ in court

Hywel Griffith, BBC News Australia correspondent

George Pell would sit in the dock with his notebook, listening, writing, but never really betraying any emotion.

As the court heard vivid descriptions of how in 1996 he had forced himself upon two victims, pushing his archbishop’s robes to one side in order to expose himself, he didn’t flinch.

After two trials, one hung jury and many months of waiting – the results of this long process are now public.

The pace of justice has felt slow at times, but it has resulted in one of the Church’s most prominent and powerful figures being held to account.

  • Read more about what happened in the courtroom

Who is Pell?

The Australian cleric forged his career as a strong supporter of traditional Catholic values, taking conservative views against contraception and abortion, and advocating for priestly celibacy.

He was summoned to Rome by the Pope in 2014 to clean up the Vatican’s finances, and was often described as the Church’s third-ranked official.

But his career has been dogged first by claims that he covered up child sexual abuse by priests, and then later that he was himself an abuser.

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Pell was demoted from the Pope’s inner circle in December. His term as Vatican treasurer expired on Sunday.

What is the wider picture?

The sexual abuse of children was rarely discussed in public before the 1970s, and it was not until the 1980s that the first cases of molestation by priests came to light, in the US and Canada.

In the 1990s, revelations began of widespread abuse in Ireland and in the new century, more cases of abuse were revealed in more than a dozen countries.

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Since his election, Pope Francis has appeared to offer new hope to victims. Under his papacy, a Vatican committee has been set up to fight sexual abuse and help victims.

In recent days, the Pope promised concrete action in tackling child sex abuse.

However, he has also been criticised for not doing enough to hold to account bishops who carried out abuse, and those alleged to have covered it up.

Victims’ groups have frequently responded to the Vatican’s efforts with scepticism.

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